Burnt Mill: A History and a Legacy

By Michael C. Connor, Founder and CEO, Connor Mill-Built Homes

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The name “Burnt Mill” says a lot about the history of the place. Many of the numerous early sawmills that were built along the rivers and streams around Wells suffered the same fate, the burning down of the central economic force that served as a town’s center of growth, by Indian raids in the early 1700s. Burnt Mill was so named because it suffered three such fires at its mill site on the Merriland River, the last being in 1934. What remains is the ever-rushing waters over the huge stones that once supported the operating mills, and the stories and memories of a three-hundred-year history of the place and its people.

There are photographs of the last mill that show a simple and solid structure that housed the machinery and the workers who tended to its operation. There is a simple elegance to its clean and utilitarian lines, a pleasing architecture in sharp contrast to commercial buildings of today. In the late 1600s when the first mill was built, it was an important piece of the frontier economy of Southern Maine. As such, it was an obvious target for the native Americans who saw the encroachment of the English settlements on their lands as a threat to their own civilization, and they were aided by the French settlers to the north who saw it in their own interest to halt the English advancement. And so the beginning of a long and harsh struggle to gain a civilized foothold in the Maine wilderness ensued.

By the middle of the Eighteenth century, the expanding population demanded an agricultural expansion so that much of the land and primeval forests surrounding the mills was cleared and became wheat fields. In the early 1800s, Sayward Hobbs, who also had a partial stake in the sawmill, became the owner of the farm that had grown up adjacent to the mill. He was only the second recorded owner of the farm, and to this day the Hobbs family still calls the farm home. Hobbs Farm Road, as it has been named for the past 75 years or so, ran through the center of the farm, passing by the old mill site, the impressive but now torn down Hobbs farm barn, one room schoolhouse and several homes that still exists along its meandering way. Ruth James lives in one of those homes, and she is the matriarch of the Hobbs family, and inherited the farm from her father, George Sayward Hobbs.

At 89, Ruth’s memory is as keen and clear as the cold rushing waters of the nearby Merriland River that once powered the namesake mills. She grew up in Missouri where her father had settled after leaving the family farm in Maine, but he returned with the family in 1942, some eight years after the last mill had been destroyed by fire. She never laid eyes on the mill, but had several old photographs of it commemorating a family history that revolved around the mill and the farm. Sitting around Ruth’s dining room table, surrounded by photographs of the farm and family that worked it for so many generations, she spoke lovingly about the farm and told stories about the family that at once showed the deep affection she had for both. And she spoke about what would now become of the farm after three centuries of hard toil at the farm and mill, both of which had become spoils of a new era that no longer embraced the economies of the former.

Like so many small family farms in Maine and throughout the country, the Hobbs farm had become economically obsolete. And while its natural beauty still shone through the quiet stillness of a now idle enterprise, maintaining that beauty and the memory of the human struggle that nurtured it for generations made it even more precious. The land had value but not as a farm. It likely would become “developed” as many of the abandoned farms in the area had become. It was Ruth’s husband Don who first thought of a golf course as a way to develop the farm with a bucolic sensitivity to its past. This was a number of years ago and Don has long since passed, leaving Ruth and her son Richard to carry on a vision for the Hobbs farm that would be a proper legacy for the history it represented.

Ruth James at home on Hobbs Farm in August 2017.

Ruth mentioned several times that she had always wanted to be a teacher, especially for third or fourth graders whose innocence and thirst for learning would be a proper palette for her gentle and nurturing tone. Circumstances dictated that she become a farm wife and she never got to be the teacher she longed to be, but listening to her gentle voice bring back the history of Hobbs farm and the sawmill and life in Wells, it was easy to picture her in the classroom, surrounded by transfixed students waiting for her to tell them more. It was also easy to comprehend that she was a person who would have a vision for the legacy of the family farm that would transcend the common supplanting of hayfields with homes.

That vision was conveyed to the present developers with whom Ruth and Richard have collaborated to see it carried out. To that end, Brad Booth, local renowned golf course architect with deep and sensitive roots in the Maine culture of natural beauty and practical management of the land, was commissioned to design a golf course in the tradition of early New England course layout, while also working with engineers to design a compatible layout for a collection of new homes on the remaining acreage. The final piece in this delicate stewardship of the Hobbs Farm legacy was to bring in a company headquartered in Vermont and noted for its design and building of historic American architecture, Connor Mill-Built Homes. It has been ten years in the planning, but the Hobbs Farm legacy is about to become the Burnt Mill Settlement, a place where open fields and centuries-old vistas accompany a collection of homes with architectural elegance from past centuries that are constant and respectful and beautiful reminders of a special place with an extraordinary history.

Sitting around Ruth’s dining room table and listening to her stories of the past, I’m reminded of one that had a special meaning for her. She spoke of her and Don attempting to move the old farmhouse a short distance to put it on a more substantial foundation. Sadly, that effort resulted in the total collapse of the house as it was being lifted. She looked up at her ceiling above the dining room table at some old exposed beams that had been salvaged from the disaster and wistfully remarked that she at least had some reminders of what was once the family home. Like the old rafters that now grace Ruth’s new home, the natural attributes preserved from the old farm, along with a sensitivity for an architectural detailing that represents the best of a former era will forever be a part of the legacy of the Hobbs Farm and be a reminder of the remarkable history that shaped the evolution of a place named Burnt Mill.